Austin City Council approved an interlocal agreement June 15 between the Austin Fire Department and Travis County Emergency Services District No. 4, which will absorb ESD 4 into the city’s department beginning Oct. 1.
Need for help
In a memo to City Council, AFD Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said annexation over the past 40 years has broken ESD 4 into five separate islands around the city of Austin. As a result of the change in the ESD’s tax base and geography, ESD 4 is unable to provide fire service to a majority of its territory under its current structure, she said.
ESD 4 presently provides firefighting services to unincorporated areas of the county, including Four Points' Westminster Glen Estates, Glenlake and Long Canyon areas; neighborhoods near Round Rock ISD's McNeil High School; Northwest Austin's Canyon Creek neighborhood and areas along Spicewood Springs Road; areas along Northeast Austin's Springdale Road; and in Austin Colony near Bastrop.
“We’re too spread out to provide adequate fire service to everyone in the district,” ESD 4 Fire Commissioner Chuck Alexander said. “ESD 4 provides fire service through property and sales tax. Every time a property is annexed by [Austin], it is taken away from ESD 4 and whittles away at our financial base. In some instances, annexation didn’t remove much land but did remove significant revenue.”
Although the district has had as many as seven fire stations in the past, ESD 4 currently operates three stations, which leaves two of the islands it covers without direct services, he said.
“I live in ESD 4, and the nearest station to my house is 15 miles,” Alexander said. “I pay taxes for that but it’s too far to get proper service, and there’s an AFD station only a mile away.”
Terms of the agreement
According to the agreement, AFD will provide services to all of ESD 4’s coverage area and will also operate out of two of the district’s existing fire stations, located at 4200 City Park Road and 14312 Hunters Bend Road. AFD will also pay for firefighting equipment at the facilities, and ESD 4 will maintain ownership of the stations and cover station maintenance, it states.
The ESD 4 station at 3400 Andtree Blvd. will close because AFD is in better position to serve the area with its existing stations, Alexander said. The two stations that will remain open will benefit AFD because the stations will give the department quicker access to ESD 4 areas and city sections, he said.
ESD 4 will also continue to operate as a tax-collecting entity, with tax revenue going to the city of Austin to cover operations in the district, estimated to be about $4.2 million in fiscal year 2017-18, the agreement states.
ESD 4 firefighters will have the opportunity to join AFD if they are interested, the agreement states.
“We negotiated, and AFD is willing to hire our workforce if the firefighters demonstrate they can physically and mentally meet the city’s standards,” Alexander said. “That doesn’t mean all of our firefighters will make it through, but they are certified with experience.”
For firefighters who are not interested in joining the AFD, ESD 4 is exploring job opportunities for them in other ESDs in the county, he said.
A permanent fix?
Alexander said ESD 4 staff is hopeful the agreement will be a permanent fix for the district, and the two parties will meet a few times a year to evaluate the arrangement and tweak the contract as needed.
“This is a fantastic opportunity and increases the service for ESD 4 taxpayers,” he said. “This will provide fire stations that are much closer than the ones we have now and will increase the depth of fire service to the entire district.”
Alexander said AFD has resources and specialized equipment that ESD 4 could not afford on its own.